I grew up in a rural community in Ireland, four miles away from the small village where I attended convent school. My family lived in a house that had been converted from a school house that had been shut down because there were not enough children to attend it; it served our family of nine well. I remember knowing that our house was bigger than most–that having 3 toilets in the house was a luxury unknown to anyone else (my best friend had none; I used the field out back when I played at her house). We were remote enough from our tiny local village that on days when the bus took too long to climb the hilly backroads to get to us, my mother would sometimes let us stay home for the day, and we would roam the fields for hours, picking our way through brambles and old ruins, seeking out mushrooms, rabbit traps, and foxholes.
I started running when I was 10, which meant being driven to the next town over, where a small ragtag group of kids of all ages were scrambling around the wet overgrown fields in bare feet while a few adults stood around and told us how many more broad circles to trace around the cow patties, how many times to somehow throw our gangly bodies over the hurdles erected by the farmer with the cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I took to running because it made me feel strong and powerful, which I didn’t much feel elsewhere. I took to it because it gave me something to say was mine, in the same ways my older siblings had already claimed computers, art, music, treasure-hunting, plant-collecting, javelin-throwing, and myriad other activities and academic pursuits.
I have been a runner ever since then. My running has taken different forms, but it has remained a pretty uncomplicated, if central, part of my life. While I have tried other sports (crew in college, most of the “field” part of track and field, once even dabbling in volleyball in middle school), running was my first and remains my deepest love in terms of finding fitness. The stages of my running history can be traced through footwear: when I graduated from bare feet to socks for racing on the track with my “Under 11” relay team, when I got spikes for middle school grade track, when I got my first Asics gels for cross-country in the 9th grade.
All of that might help explain why I am at a loss right now trying to relate to Free’s experience with sports. At her age, I was on the playground learning the ins and outs of “tackling,” a rough grab and go game that involved a basketball and, well, tackling your friends with everything you had. Free, on the other hand, (like so many her age in the U.S.) has already tried quite a few sports on for size. Her current loves are soccer, hockey, and gymnastics, and she has also dabbled in karate, zumba, hip-hop, and even kiddie yoga.
Our current dilemma is that at the grand old age of 8, Free has progressed to the competitive team level of gymnastics, which requires practices three times a week, for 2-3 hours at a time. The schedule will be impossible for us, which is why I found a new place closer to home. I’ve written before how, when we signed on there, the coach pulled me aside to tell me he wanted to take her out of the level I’d picked in order to move her into a more appropriate level, which requires three workouts a week, for 2-3 hours at a time.
Sigh. This year, we got lucky with soccer because, as an “old” 2nd grader, Free got the choice to play down or play up. She played down, which meant one practice a week. Next year, she won’t have the choice; playing with other girls her age means (you guessed it) three workouts a week.
So here’s what I need help with, and perhaps some of you can enlighten me on the ways and whys of organized sports in this country. Do parents and children really have to decide at this tender age which sport to commit to? I have this foreboding sense that if Free drops (or doesn’t try) a sport now, she won’t be able to come in later and do as well. Newman has tried to reassure me that a good athlete is a good athlete, and she will be able to move around as much as she wants for a few years, at least, but the pressure seems to be mounting on all sides.
I’m also wondering if it’s possible to sign on to teams and just skip some of these practices. I know it would be frowned upon, but is this something people do? If not, how do they make it work? I want her to try everything, probably because I don’t know how half of these sports even work. Her dad is pushing for hockey, lacrosse and field hockey down the road, and I secretly want her to fall in love with running like her mom. And then there’s the reality of what she loves, where her friends are, and where she finds success. Because we live so far away from where she goes to school, it will certainly be a challenge for her to do what she wants to do, but I didn’t think we’d have to face those issues so soon.
I know what I DON’T want for Free. I want to avoid crazy competitiveness and unhealthy pressures. I don’t want her to sacrifice everything else in her world for one thing; I don’t want her to feel like she loses it all if she isn’t the best of the best. I know I’m getting ahead of myself with all of this. I might just be freaking out because I have to help her make decisions, and they might have consequences I can’t predict. How do I do that?
In the short run, she’s signed up for gymnastics and soccer for the Spring, which means 3 practices a week but in a way that still allows 2 sports. It will already be a challenge, and she doesn’t yet have real homework at school.
What I really want to do, of course, is to take her by the hand, lead her out to a wet, overgrown field, point, and say “go run, baby. I’ll count your laps.”
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